How to Suffer Less
There is a path well known to psychologists, but also to religion. It is discussed in many ways, each seeking to connect with those in pain who want to hear it. It's easy to get lost in the jargon, or distracted by it, as if it is the point. But it's not about healers or wearing saffron robes.
It starts with a growing awareness of what you're experiencing and why. If you are aware of how you feel and the thoughts associated with the experience, you can begin to understand yourself. It helps to know how you feel and why you feel that way.
It helps to know the mechanics of emotion. That feelings result from thoughts. And that thoughts can be worked with, chosen, let go. You change how you feel, and how you feel about things, by changing how you think.
You begin to see how you are affected by uncertainty, not having what you want to have, relating to people who aren't what you wish they were.
You begin to see you have expectations and assumptions about everything. You begin to see that you suffer because reality (the way things are) does not meet those expectations. Think about how the pain you feel (disappointment, anger, disillusionment, resentment, bitterness, impatience, dissatisfaction, shame, embarrassment...) is always related to the gap between the way things are and the way you wish they were, expect them to be, assume they are.
Most of the time we can't see the connection and we may not be consciously aware of our expectations. Many of what I'm calling expectations are the assumptions formed as we grow up in our particular context, the product of learning and attributing meanings to our experience. The same goes for assumptions about ourselves; these are like an operating system that biases our perceptions and determines how we behave and think.
We can learn to be aware of our assumptions and expectations, and thus to see how they contribute to our pain. And then we are in a position to do something about it. We can either work to bring reality into line with our expectations, or we can work to bring our expectations in line with reality.
Many people reject the latter as seeming too passive, as if it is giving up or giving in. Acceptance should not be misunderstood as resignation. Acceptance frees us from suffering, though first it puts us in direct contact with the pain, the thoughts (assumptions) causing it, and what we think those mean about us. That can be intense, but it grounds us in reality. And when acceptance is done lovingly, with compassion, we feel better about ourselves even when we see more clearly that we are not what we thought we were, don't have what we wish we had, and are dealing with people who are less ideal than we wish they were.
One benefit of getting grounded in reality is that we are in a far better place from which to make realistic changes to any of those things. Or to discern that some wished for changes are futile or not worth the energy. Or that maybe there's not such a crisis or compulsion to change things, to bend the world to your needs, to demand satisfaction, to control others.
So where does this bring us? When we intend to be more aware of our assumptions, and how they cause us to suffer, we are in a better position to understand things more fully, as they are. We might understand that what we thought about someone is only part of the whole picture, or even inaccurate.
There are all sorts of methods for increasing your ability to get in touch with your feelings, see and understand the associated thoughts, and know yourself. These include self-awareness and Mindfulness techniques, psychotherapy, journaling, and engaging with one's religion. It's important to approach these options openly, but with discernment. The point is to seek the help they have to offer. Don't get distracted trying to find proof that this or that method is perfect. Be pragmatic; if it works for you, it's good enough. By "works for you", I don't mean, can it fix you, or do the fixing for you; I mean, can you use it? Does it help you understand yourself better? Accept yourself more fully? Provide guidance to help you make good decisions and act on them effectively? And, lastly, can it help you approach this hard work lovingly, perhaps even with a lightness or sense of humor, an appreciation for the mysteries of being human?